Sexting is a term that refers to texting sexual images and messages, and if you think your teen hasn’t been exposed to it, just check these stats:

  • 20% of all teens have sent or posted a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves
  • 39% of teens have sent or posted sexually suggestive messages
  • 48% of teens have received sexual messages and images
  • 11% of young teen girls, ages 13-16, have been involved in sexting
  • 44% of teens say its common for sexually suggestive text messages to be shared with people other than the intended recipient

I first heard of sexting when Kira came to me with a horror story about it when she was in her teens. Kira’s friend took a nude picture of herself to send to her boyfriend. When her friend sent the picture, however, she managed to send it to her entire contact list, including her grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Oh, and mom and dad got a copy too. My daughter was mortified for her friend.

Luckily, Kira learned vicariously one of the pitfalls of sexting, but it opened the door to a conversation that allowed us to explore reasons why sexting is a bad idea – and help her come to her own conclusions that made it easier for her to say no to sexting. She admitted that it was fairly common for a boy to initiate a text conversation by asking for a picture or saying something sexual.

Sexting, like other sexual experimentation, probably starts as innocent curiosity, not much different than the “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” that many people experience as kids. But the show me yours/mine scenario is limited to the moment. One a digital image is made and hits cyberspace, it can get out of control.

If your tween or teen is old enough to use a cell phone and understand its functionality, he or she is old enough for a age-appropriate conversation about sexting. Here are five things every parent should explain to their teens about sexting:

  1. Accidents can and do happen in the process of sending the risque message or picture. It can accidentally be sent to someone unintended, causing a lot of embarrassment. But even if you do only send it to one person, you have no control over whom that person forwards it to. You can find other ways to express your interest and desire for someone other than sending a permanent digital record into cyber space.
  2. Sexting can be like any other peer pressure. A boy wants a sexy picture, and you’re afraid if you don’t send one, he won’t be interested. Or, a girl is desperate for a boy’s attention and initiates contact by sending a picture or suggestive message. The problem is, sexting, like any other sexual activity is something intimate. If you wouldn’t go to school naked, why would you send a picture that the whole school may end up seeing when the image is posted to Facebook by an unscrupulous “friend.” The boy or girl who really cares about you will not put you in the position of doing something that makes you uncomfortable, period.
  3. Sexting can be considered a form of sexual harassment, and with most schools adopting no-tolerance policies, it could land you in more trouble that it’s worth. Worse that that, a frightening number of laws have been passed to make possessing, sending, and taking pictures a form of child pornography. While this reactionary attitude is over the top and doesn’t address the real issue – appropriate boundaries and a healthy attitude about sex and sexuality – you could still land in a lot of hot water with the law if you send, receive, or take sexual messages and images – including being required to register as a sex offender.
  4. No matter how private you intend the message or image to be, it’s probably going to be forwarded, shared, or posted. Even the best intentions fall flat when a fight or break up happens. Going to school with the reputation as “that” girl or guy can be painful and difficult, not to mention humiliating.
  5. It’s ok to say NO. Not only can you say no to taking and sending pics of your own, but you can help protect others by not participating in forwards and posts that others send.

Here’s the thing. If you’re not already having comfortable, open conversations with your kids about sex and sexuality, having a chat about sexting isn’t going to be any easier. With all things sexual, the best way to have the talk with your teens is to be open, honest, and direct.